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Meeting with Vladimir Bukovsky: thinking about future of Ukraine and Russia

Monday, 16. January 2012

As a part of Healing the Past project Olha Hudz-Sakuma (Ukraine), Lena Kashkarova (Ukraine) and Diana Damsa (Romania) visited a representative of Soviet dissidents’ movement Vladimir Bukovsky in his house in Cambridge. The past and future of Ukraine and Russia, the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in the present days society and the interaction between personal and civil responsibility are among the topics discussed with Vladimir Bukovsky. Report by Lena Kashkarova.

Vladimir Bukovsky (born 30 December, 1942) is a leading member of Russian dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s, writer, neurophysiologist, and political activist. Bukovsky was one of the first to expose the use of psychiatric imprisonment against political prisoners in the Soviet Union. He spent a total of 12 years in Soviet prisons, labour camps and in forced-treatment psychiatric hospitals used by the government as special prisons.

Lena Kashkarova, Olha Hudz-Sakuma, Vladimir Bukovsky and Diana Damsa, Cambridge, 2011

In December 1976, in his eleventh year in psychiatric hospitals and prison camps, Bukovsky was exchanged by the Soviet government for the imprisoned Chilean Communist leader Luis Corvalán. He took up refuge in Great Britain, where later moved from London to Cambridge for his studies. In his autobiographical book To Build a Castle, Bukovsky describes how he was brought to Switzerland. This biography is available online at several sites. (Wikipedia)

Vladimir Bukovsky to some is embodied history. He played a part in making history and at the same time experienced Soviet Union realities with all their atrocities. Olga Hudz-Sakuma, Diana Damsa and Lena Kashkarova visited him in his home in Cambridge as a part of Healing the Past project programme.

Patrick Colquhoun made it possible for us to meet. Patrick is a full-time worker of Initiatives of Change since 1961. A number of years previously he became interested in the dissident movement in USSR and made a movie One Word of Truth based on the Nobel Prize speech of Solzhenitsyn; later he became a friend for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Bukovsky and many other dissidents.    

We had a long conversation about past and future with Vladimir Bukovsky. It was about Ukraine, Russia and other countries from the former communist block. We asked Vladimir about his opinion of the project ‘Healing the Past’ and work of ‘Foundations for Freedom’ in general. We wanted to get to know names and contact details of people who might be interested in the project and who might be helpful to us. Jokingly we said that we, like the KGB, wanted to know people ‘involved’. However, unlike with this ‘wonderful’ institution, Vladimir Bukovsky answered our questions sincerely and willingly:)

The conversation started on a rather surprising note. To our question of what is the most urgent and needed work that needs to be done in Russia, he answered that nothing can be done. Our faces reflected our surprise and he continued: 'Russia has missed all its chances. I do not see what and how things can be improved. In my opinion, partition is the only option ahead for us'. 

In spite of this statement during our conversation we discovered that he thought that the 'Sorry Book'  idea that has been started by our Russian friends could be useful, as well as work on raising awareness, showing movies and giving trustworthy information about our Soviet past. Also he agreed that people who lived through awful atrocities should have a chance to speak about their pain and be heard. Moreover, in his opinion in every single person there is desire for forgiveness and reconciliation. That is why even former enemies want and need to hear each other. Our task could be to help them, facilitating the process.

To my question of what is the difference between the situation in Soviet Union, when he fought against the Communist regime and the situation in Russia nowadays, Vladimir Bukovsky answered: 'collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable. It was a system fully built on lies. And it was too silly of the ruling elite to claim its right of "absolute truth". Any word of real truth went straight to the point destroying the regime. Nowadays very little is prohibited. But the truth gets lost in the huge flow of information, quite often in the flow of lies and nonsense'. 'During USSR times',  continued Mr.Bukovsky, ' the matter was not so much whether we would get imprisoned or not. That was definite. They were so scared of truth that we would get imprisoned anyway. But importantly it was on what conditions. We used the final statement at the court to speak out to the whole country. By some miracle there always were people at these "open" hearings to write down the speech and pass it on through Samizdat  to millions of our countrymen'.

Olga Hudz was interested in Vladimir Bukovsky’s connection to Ukraine, his opinion about the current situation and his expectations for its future. The former dissident answered sincerely that he didn't know well enough the realities, that was why it was hard for him to judge. Instead he told us about his visit to Ukraine when its independence was considered: 'As a "good moskal"  I got invited to speak in front of your Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) on whether Ukraine should get independence. I came, saw that half of Rada's MPs were well known to me through prisons and labour camps, and spoke. After me it was George Bush who came to talk them out of the idea of independence. But it was me who got listened to'.

Also he shared his thoughts about mistakes of the Ukrainian government: 'It was a wrong step by the leaders to impose the Ukrainian language on the population. One needs to attract, show all the richness and beauty of the language and culture rather than force its use. Imposing methods disaffected many people and didn't allow Ukrainian to gain unity'.

Vladimir Bukovsky is often blamed as being irreconcilable and resentful. He explains: 'How can I forgive, when nobody shows the slightest signs of regret? There was just one case in my life when a journalist who wrote lots of dirt about me during Soviet times apologised. And he did this twice – first privately and then, the same evening – publicly. I even felt uncomfortable. But I thought that this was quite a courageous step'.

A daughter of Stalin Svetlana Allilueva, according to Vladimir Bukovsky, was well aware of the importance of admitting mistakes: 'Vladimir Maximov told me once as some kind of an anecdote: “The daughter of Stalin called and scolded me for not criticizing her father enough in my book”'.

The biggest revelation for me was this quote from Vladimir Bukovsky book To Build a Castle: 'There were no leaders and no led, there was no allocation of roles, and no one was actively pushed or persuaded. But despite the complete absence of organizational forms, the activities of the protesting community were astonishingly well coordinated. From outside, it was difficult to see how this came about. The KGB, as of old, spent its time looking for leaders and plots, secret hiding places and addresses, but every time they arrested a supposed 'leader', they were astonished to discover that not only had this not weakened the movement but in many instances it had even strengthened it. …each of us, like a nerve cell, participated in this amazing conductorless orchestra, spurred on only by a consciousness of our own dignity and a sense of personal responsibility for what was happening around us'.

By this description the dissident movement was a real community. And this community, which consisted of a handful of people, managed to sustain and win the battle with the huge machine of the Soviet regime. Bukovsky experienced himself and showed in his book amazing interconnection between personal responsibility and exceptional independence in standing up for a person's dignity and extraordinary cohesion of their actions and mutual support. Only being 'separate' they could work together. Only being 'together'  they could sustain separately...

This strange phenomenon is what, in my opinion, we try to create through the work of 'Foundations for Freedom'. To help people to bring up a sense of personal responsibility and create a community of those who are ready to follow what this 'responsibility' tells them. That’s a big task. But what an effect it can make!